When Iraqi tribal leaders came to D.C. looking for help against ISIL, the White House refused. Then the former president made a call.
By MARK PERRY
February 12, 2015
Late in the evening of Sunday, January 18, an eleven-member delegation of tribal leaders from Iraq’s western Anbar Province arrived in Washington, D.C. Just as their plane was touching down, Islamic State units back in Iraq attacked the compound of one of the delegation’s senior leaders, Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, killing nine Iraqi police officers and wounding 28 of the sheik’s guards. A nearby Iraqi military unit failed to respond to repeated calls for help.
The brutal attack underscored the purpose of the Anbar delegation’s visit: The tribal leaders believed that they could defeat the Islamic State—but only if the Obama administration would agree to ship them weapons directly, bypassing Iraq’s untrustworthy Ministry of Defense.
Yet after they arrived in Washington the tribal leaders found themselves thwarted at every turn in their efforts to meet with high-level administration officials. They were told they would have to take up these matters with new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and would have to rely for weapons on those provided to them by Abadi’s ministry of defense.
That’s when George W. Bush called Abu Risha at his hotel in Washington.
It’s startling enough for a Sunni tribal leader to get a call from a former U.S. president—and even more so from Bush, who has been especially reluctant to interfere in world affairs since leaving office. But Iraq, after all, was Bush’s baby. He knew about the tribesmen’s difficulties as Islamic State fighters continued to make inroads against the Iraqi military, and he had been alerted to the delegation’s visit in Washington by his contacts in the U.S. policymaking community.
Abu Risha, the president of the powerful Anbar Awakening Council, said Bush listened carefully as the sheik explained in a 20-minute conversation that the Anbar tribesmen were unlikely to get any weapons from the Iraqi government, which, as Abu Risha claimed, is notoriously corrupt, beholden to Tehran and more interested in arming Shia militias than Sunni tribesmen. Bush urged Abu Risha to extend his stay and meet with retired Gen. David Petraeus, as well as with Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham. According to Abu Risha, Bush pledged that he would “do everything I can” to help him get a hearing in Washington.
Iraq’s Sunni Anbar tribesmen comprise a minority in Iraq, but have historically had an outsized influence in its government. That influence ended with the 2003 U.S. invasion, which empowered Iraq’s majority Shia population. Anbar’s Sunnis fought back—mounting a bloody insurgency against U.S. forces, allowing al Qaeda to recruit fighters from Anbar’s disaffected population. But al Qaeda overplayed its hand, imposing their harsh vision of Islam on Anbar’s population. So, beginning in mid-2004, the province’s tribal leaders began to shift their allegiance away from al Qaeda, choosing instead to force the terrorist group out of the region. The United States supported this so-called Anbar Awakening with arms and ammunition.
But following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the Shia-controlled Iraqi government marginalized Anbar’s tribes, providing an opening for the Islamic State, which represented an even more virulent form of jihadism than appeared in Anbar in 2003, to advance. America’s response has been to pressure Abadi’s Baghdad government to support the tribes. The support has not arrived, and, worse yet, the Shia-controlled Baghdad government has ensured that weapons are funneled to Iraq’s Shia militias, many of which are under the sway of Iran and are cleansing Sunni influence in areas of eastern Iraq. The result is that, in Anbar, the Islamic State has gotten stronger, while the tribes remain weak.
The Anbar delegation that arrived in Washington on January 18 hoped to reverse this policy, arguing that the United States should bypass the Baghdad government in arming the tribes against ISIL as they had once done against al Qaeda. Doing so, they believed, would spark an Anbar “Re-Awakening.”
The delegation, which in addition to Abu Risha included Anbar Gov. Sohaib al-Rawi, Haditha Mayor Abdalhakeem al-Jughaifi and Anbar Provincial Council Chairman Sabah Karhout, had high hopes at first. Their 10-day schedule included a meeting with a White House aide and a visit to retired Gen. John Allen (Obama’s emissary to the coalition fighting the Islamic State) at his home, as well as one-on-one meetings at the State Department and Pentagon. They arrived confident that they would be heard; after all, the Obama administration had made the fight against the Islamic State a priority and Allen had promised during meetings with Sunni tribesmen in October in Amman, Jordan, to pass their request for arms on to the Pentagon.
But as their meetings in Washington went on, their hopes started to fade.
“There were a lot of smiles, a lot of nodding heads, but that was it,” one of the delegation’s members told me. “It’s clear the administration has made up its mind. Abadi’s their man, and that’s that.” Another delegation member agreed, but was even more outspoken. “We appreciate the meetings we had, they were fine,” he said, “but it’s obvious that U.S. officials were going through the motions. I wouldn’t call it the ‘cold shoulder,’ but it certainly was a cool one.”
No one was going through the motions more than Vice President Joe Biden, according to several of the Anbar delegates. Biden surprised the delegation on the afternoon of January 22 by dropping in on their White House meeting with Phil Gordon, the administration’s coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region. The voluble Biden was at his best, smiling broadly and accompanying his handshake with his patented shoulder grip. Biden reassured the delegation that Abadi’s government was working hard to restructure Iraq’s military, and he urged them to cooperate with him. “The Vice President encouraged the delegates to continue to work constructively with Prime Minister Abadi and the Iraqi government . . .” a “read out” from the Vice President’s office concluded.
On the record, Anbar’s delegates said they were pleased by Biden’s visit. (“We’re honored that vice president took the time to see us,” Abu Risha told me.) But off the record they were bitterly disappointed. “We’re interested in fighting ISIL [Islamic State] and the administration is interested in restructuring the Iraqi government,” a delegation member said. “In the meantime, ISIL is killing our people.” (The vice president’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the meeting.)
That view was reinforced when delegation members met at the Pentagon with Elissa Slotkin, the Defense Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. The delegation had hoped to press their case with officers of the U.S. Central Command, but had been told to meet with Slotkin instead. While Slotkin had spent 20 months in Iraq, she has consistently raised the ire of Sen. John McCain for her testimony on U.S. policy in the Middle East, which included a nasty exchange in December, when Slotkin told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the administration’s “strategy” in Iraq and Syria was to “defeat ISIL.” McCain couldn’t believe it. “That’s a goal, not a strategy,” he sputtered. “I want to know what the strategy is.”
Slotkin fared no better with Abu Risha’s Anbar delegation. “She basically reiterated Biden’s point,” a delegation member said in describing the meeting, “and seemed to have a lot of faith in Abadi. She knows Iraq, and we were pleased with that. But we were hoping to get someone in uniform—someone who can make a decision.”
The meetings with Biden and Slotkin reinforced what many in the delegation suspected: Despite the administration’s vow to defeat ISIL, the United States places a greater priority on its nuclear negotiations with Iran, and the administration was leery of upsetting the Shiite Iranian leadership by arming the Sunni Anbar tribes. In effect, Anbar’s leaders believe, the U.S. refusal to arm Anbar’s tribes directly means turning a blind eye to Tehran’s growing influence in Iraq and Iran’s policy of arming of Iraq’s Shia militias. “The only promise we got was what we’ve heard before, that the United States would do everything it could to oversee and ensure the accelerated delivery of U.S. weapons to us,” Abu Risha told me.
As one Anbar leader said: “The truth is that our Ministry of Defense is owned lock, stock and barrel by Tehran—and Joe Biden knows it. So he smiled, patted us on the back, and sent us on our way.” That was just days after ISIL militants had attacked Abu Risha’s Ramadi compound.
To Abu Risha, the Islamic State attack on his compound “symbolized what every Sunni in Anbar faces every day. … We can’t depend on the Iraqi army for anything.” As if to emphasize his point, Abu Risha reached down for his cell phone, then shoved it across the table at me. “You know who this is?” he asked. There, the sheik had downloaded a photo showing Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani hugging Iraqi Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri. Soleimani is notorious in the United States as the mastermind behind Iran’s control of Iraq’s Shia militias and is designated a terrorist by the U.S. State Department, while Amiri’s Badr Organization controls one of Iraq’s most effective, and Shia controlled, militias. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, who has just taken office, has proven thus far too weak (or too unwilling) to stand up to Tehran.“This isn’t exactly a secret,” Abu Risha said, tapping his telephone. “This picture is all over Iraq.” For one of Abu Risha’s colleagues, the message of the photo was unmistakable. “Our country is being turned over to the Iranians,” he said, as Abu Risha sat, in silent agreement, “and the Americans are looking the other way.”
“We’re frustrated, we’re angry and we’re facing a disaster,” Anbar Governor Sohaib al-Rawi told me the evening before his flight back to Iraq. “We can defeat ISIS if we can get the weapons we need, but that’s not happening. The White House doesn’t seem to understand—if we have to depend on the Iraqi government we’re going to lose.”
It was on this pessimistic note that most of Anbar’s tribal leaders returned home on January 29, their frustrating visit at an end—leaving Sheik Abu Risha several more days to make his case to the administration. It seemed like a hopeless task.
But then, on the morning of January 31, the sheik received his unexpected telephone call from Bush. “I hadn’t expected to hear from the former president,” Abu Risha told me the afternoon after the phone call, “but we had a very detailed discussion. I told him what we needed, that this was a crisis. He listened closely to what I had to say and he agreed—more people needed to hear our message.” The sheik then recounted to me Bush’s September 2007 visit to Anbar, when the then-president met with his brother, Sheik Abdul Sattar, whose leadership had sparked the Anbar Awakening that had united the Anbar tribes in their victorious fight against al Qaeda in 2006 and early 2007. Abdul Sattar paid a heavy price for the meeting:Just 10 days after seeing Bush, al Qaeda planted a bomb in his car, and he was killed in the explosion. Bush remembered this in his conversation with the sheik. “The president hadn’t forgotten my brother’s sacrifice,” Abu Risha told me. (A Bush spokesman told me the former president never comments on private calls.)
Not surprisingly, the Bush telephone call resulted in a quiet meeting between the sheik and Petraeus (“I can’t and won’t talk about that meeting,” Abu Risha told me) and then, on the evening of February 5, with Senators McCain and Graham at McCain’s office on Capitol Hill. McCain’s office confirmed his meeting with Sheik Abu Risha, but would not characterize its contents. The result of these exchanges—the Bush telephone call and the meetings with Petraeus, McCain and Graham—seemed to confirm for Abu Risha that while the administration was committed to defeating the Islamic State, its opposition to arming the tribes by bypassing the Abadi government reflected its fears that to do so would offend Tehran—and endanger the P5+1 talks on Iran’s nuclear program.
A large number of former U.S. commanders who worked with Anbar’s tribes during the Awakening agree. “Here we are, trying to reinvent the wheel, when we have people in Anbar we know who will fight for us,” retired Marine Col. John Coleman told me on the morning following Abu Risha’s meeting with McCain and Graham. Coincidentally, Coleman (who played a crucial role in shaping the earliest days of the Anbar Awakening as Chief of Staff to General James Conway, the head of I Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq in 2004 and 2005) was meeting with members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs just as Abu Risha was talking with McCain and Graham in McCain’s office. Coleman was just as frustrated, repeating his former commander’s judgment that Obama’s anti-ISIL strategy “doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell” of succeeding.
“I’m not going to question this administration’s policy,” Coleman told me in a wide ranging telephone discussion following his Capitol Hill meetings. “But I think we need to recognize what Iran is doing. They’re supporting Shia militias that are cleansing Sunni areas along their border, and they’re holding up weapons resupply in Anbar. And we’re letting them get away with it.”Coleman, who was aware of the visit of Abu Risha’s Anbar delegation to Washington, says he supports the sheik’s position, and also believes the United States should “rebuild our country’s alliance” with those Anbar tribes that he and the Marines supported in the Awakening’s earliest days.
“There are people out there [in Anbar] who will help us; they’ve shown us what they can do. They stood toe-to-toe with al Qaeda and won. We have to remember that the real turnaround in Iraq was the [Anbar] Awakening, not the surge,” he says, “and that we can and should build on that.” Coleman, who is supported by a tightly knit group of Marine veterans who opened Anbar in 2004 and 2005, says that a separate delegation of Anbar leaders plans to meet with administration officials next week. Included in this group, according to a memorandum circulated among Coleman’s supporters, are members of Anbar’s Dulaimi tribe as well as sheiks representing Ramadi, Fallujah and western Iraq. The paper argues that the United States should “reconstitute” the Iraqi National Guard in Anbar, which would “signal to Tehran that their hold over Prime Minister Abadi is over.”
For now, Abu Risha says, he and his colleagues will have to be satisfied with what the White House promised him during his visit—that U.S. military personnel will oversee and ensure the accelerated delivery of U.S. weapons to Anbar—while hoping that his meetings with Gen. Petraeus and Sens. McCain and Graham will provide the political pressure to guarantee that that promise is kept. “I hope that works, I hope the White House keeps its promise,” Abu Risha says. “But if they don’t, I’ll be back here to try again.” He then shakes his head and shows a wan smile. “If I’m still alive.”